SRU engineering facilities provide flexible learning opportunities with the ‘class-atory’


Students in the engineering lab

Shah Limon, Slippery Rock University assistant professor of physics and engineering, demonstrates a flexible manufacturing station for SRU students. A component of SRU’s engineering flex labs, the equipment can sort products based on color, size, shape and material type.

Oct. 14, 2022

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — For decades, it was assumed that engineering labs had to be expansive, dedicated buildings filled with expensive equipment. And in many universities, that's still the case. However, more and more of these labs are suffering from underutilization, inefficient space usage and poor functionality, necessitating expensive renovations. When Slippery Rock University added mechanical and civil engineering programs to the School of Engineering, SRU opted for a solution that still involves state-of-the-art equipment but that uses space in a more innovative fashion.

SRU's new engineering labs are part of a trend in higher education where classrooms and laboratories are coming together in one space, known as the "class-atory." This allows institutions to maximize their physical assets and provide students with more flexible ways to learn.

SRU's School of Engineering, and its three new flex labs, are a good example of how students are getting hands-on experience in the same spaces where class lectures and group discussions occur. Constructed last year, the three labs use modular equipment that can easily be readily reconfigured to meet teaching needs for experiments, demonstrations, testing, analysis and many other opportunities for applied learning. Three similar labs are scheduled to be completed by fall 2023.

Steven Wei


There are no rigid spaces for lectures or specific research and no labs dedicated only to one class or professor. This makes for a more efficient use of the space as many engineering classes do not require separate lab sessions with a different professor and more credit hours. At SRU, courses have lab components to optimize not only the facilities, but more importantly, students' time and attention.

"These are modern laboratories with multiple modes of operation," said Louis Christensen, assistant professor of physics and engineering. "I can have lectures or group discussions that I would have had in a classroom and then easily move to a demonstration without switching rooms or buildings. This enforces the concept of engineering that happens both in your discussions and also in the practice."

For example, in his Thermal Systems Design course, Christensen can wheel in a miniature, portable power plant to teach thermodynamic systems and show students how electricity is generated using propane gas to heat water and push stream through a turbine.

"I like to be able to move around and see the processes in motion," said Eric Frohnapfel, a senior mechanical engineering major from Canonsburg. "It's nice to be able to see things like thermal heat transfers actually taking place rather than talking about it theoretically."

The concept of the class-atory is an emerging trend across the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. According to a report by Tradeline, a provider of facility planning and management conferences, the average teaching lab requires about 56 square feet per student including support areas for preparation, instrumentation and storage. The expense of building and maintaining numerous specialized labs with this amount of space can become unwieldy. As a result, institutions are becoming more economical and efficient with their use of space.

SRU's three flex labs, at a combined 4,700 square feet, provides the average class size (about 20 students) in the labs more than 77 square feet per student, exceeding the industry standard. But with a flex lab model, SRU has been able to build fewer labs, providing efficiency. The flex labs offer space for hands-on learning for everything from mechatronics and robotics to structural engineering analysis and material testing.

"We're changing the model in higher education. No longer do professors or students from a certain discipline need to have their own lab where no one else can use that space," said Steven Wei, professor of physics and engineering and director of SRU's School of Engineering. "Students benefit from this approach because they have more opportunities for hands-on learning, and scheduling classes at desired times and making efficient use of our facilities."

The architecture firm that developed SRU's flex labs, CannonDesign, has designed laboratories and research facilities all over the world, not to mention being named by Fast Company as one the Most Innovative Companies in North America.

"This idea of adaptability and flexibility is a trend that's becoming an important part of operating laboratories across the board," said Jeff Murray, senior vice president and leader of CannonDesign's Science and Technology market segment. "Single-use laboratories that are only used a couple of times a week is impractical for everybody. Flex labs allow engineering schools to adapt quickly, not just in the near term from hour to hour for classes, but they're able to change over time as needs change."

These needs could be from industry, if employers begin to need engineers with certain skills or experiences, but also in the allocation of students in SRU's program. SRU currently offers programs in civil, industrial and systems, mechanical, and petroleum and natural gas engineering, four majors that have all been added since 2016. The flex labs offer both flexibility and affordability. The average cost of tuition and fees for a four-year engineering degree at SRU is just over $45,000, nearly half the cost of the same degree at the University of Pittsburgh and almost four times less than the cost of four years at Duquesne University or Saint Vincent College. There are more than 190 engineering students enrolled at SRU in fall 2022, an 85% increase since 2019.

More information about engineering programs at SRU are available on the School of Engineering webpage.

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